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Indian Cultural Imprint in Thailand: By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

CAS Article No. 19/2019

July 17, 2019

Few years ago, R. Venkataraman, former Rashtrapathy, was addressing a meeting organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) on Indian cultural influences in Southeast Asia. He referred to his visit to Thailand, where his hosts arranged a banquet in his honour. The banquet was preceded by a dance ballet, the theme of which was Ramayana. During the interval, the host turned to Venkataraman and asked him: “Do you have Ramayana in your country?” Venkataraman wanted to tell his host that his name itself was not one Rama, but two Ramas, Ramaswamy Venkataraman and his wife’s name was Janaki. But he restrained himself, for he felt happy and proud that Ramayana was immensely popular in Thailand and the people consider it as their national epic.

If I am asked to name one Asian epic I will definitely say it is Ramayana. It has gone from India to all Southeast Asian countries and has exerted tremendous influence in their ways of life, art, architecture, music and dance and fashioning of social values. It is so popular that artists and story tellers have made additions to it.

People in Thailand believe, except renowned scholars, that Ramayana took place in Thailand. Their capital city was Ayuthia (until 1767 when it was destroyed by the Burmese) and after coronation their kings took the title of Rama. The main thread running through Ramkein is the story as narrated by Valmiki, but over the centuries additions and deletions have taken place. It was due to the fact that the Sri Vijayan Empire and Khemer Empire contributed a lot to the popularization of Ramayana in Thailand. Above all, the Thai story tellers embellished it with their own imagination. In the Ramkein names, dress, weapons, customs and even the topography all relate to Thai Kingdom. Rama is Phra Ram and instead of being the incarnation of Vishnu, Phra Ram is the incarnation of Lord Buddha. As Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri has written: “As a story Ramkein is of gripping interest. Told through a variety of incidents and episodes … it has an appeal of its own. It is a good insight study of the human imagination at play in inventing chips of different hues and sizes, of possibles and impossibles and putting them together…It is this mosaic which makes Ramkein stand out as an independent entity and not a pale shadow of the pioneering work of Valmiki, who might have been the first to tell the Rama story, but as the Thai Ramayana proves was not the last. It is the Rama story everywhere, but not the same. And that is the beauty of it”. The immense vitality of the Ramayana tradition in Thailand is a proof, if a proof is necessary, to the aptness of Brahma’s assurance to Valmiki: “And O’ Great Sage, so long as the mountains stand and the rivers flow, so long will this story of Rama’s heroic deeds be told and cherished on earth”.

Among the ethnic groups that inhabit Southeast Asia, Thais were the last to arrive in the region in 13th century. Southern China from where they came was not sinicised then; what is more, the Indian influences had already spread there and there were Hinduised kingdoms like Nanchao. There was another Hinduised kingdom in Nanchao called Gandhara; one part of Gandhara was called Videharajya, its capital was Mithila and the king was titled Maharaja, believed to be the descendant of Asoka. Though ethnologically similar to the Chinese their culture was Hindu. Rather than being subjected to domination of the Mongols, the Thais (Thai means free) moved southwards and came to present day Thailand. Equally important, the territory which comprises Thailand today had already come under Hindu influence due to their coming under the domination of Sri Vijaya, Dvaravati and the Khmers. The three great kings Rama Kamheng, Ramadhipati akd King Trailok consolidated their power and gave political unity to the country. Buddhism became the dominant religion but it did not replace the Hindu influences. Buddhism and Hinduism blended into one.

The name Siam is derived from the Sanskrit word Shyam. The national emblem of Thailand is Garuda. It was recognized as the national emblem in 1911 by King Vajrayudh (Rama VI). Bangkok is full of temples, the most important of which is Wat Phra Keo, the temple of Emerald Buddha, very near to the royal palace. The main object of worship is a single stone jasper image of Buddha. The figures of Vishnu and Garuda adorn the temple. In the ceiling is a Trisula. In the compound there are large number of Garudas, Kinnaras and Narasimhas.

Let me provide few glimpses into Hindu culture in Thailand. Thai language is full of Sanskrit words, though it is pronounced differently. Words like akas, rath, maha, racha (raja), cakra and sathani (sthan). Indian literary works like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shakuntalam have formed the basis of some of the great literary works of Thailand. Knowledge of Ramkein is essential for a cultured Siamese. Dance, drama and music also bears Indian imprint. And what is more, the Thai legal system was based on Manusmrithi

The two most popular Hindu Gods in Thailand are Brahma and Ganesa. Brahma worship is uncommon in India, there are only two Brahma temples, one in Rajasthan and another in Assam. A number of Brahma images can be seen in several buildings. The most striking image of Brahma can be seen in front of hotel Erawan in Bangkok. Thais bow their heads in reverence whenever they pass through the road. Brahma worship is of recent origin. The story goes when Hotel Eravan was being constructed it would stop in the middle for one reason or another. Astrologers suggested the installation of Brahma statue as a remedy and the construction went on smoothly. People developed faith in Brahma and worship him before they undertake any good work like construction of houses starting a new business and performance of marriages etc. Interestingly in Thailand worship of Yamaraja is widely prevalent, Yama is not only the custodian of death but is also Dharmaraja, upholder of dharma.

There is a Brahmin temple in Bangkok, about 230 years old. As soon as you enter the temple you see the idol of Brahma. Behind it are the images of Siva, Vishnu and Ganesa. A little distance away there is another temple Thai Sao Ching Cha. Till the beginning of the 20th century the idols of Siva and Parvathi were brought out once a year from the royal palace and kept for popular darshan in a swing. First, the Brahmin will give a push to the swing, then the king and the queen. After some time, the idols will be taken back to the royal palace. Mention should also be made of another Brahmin temple in Lobpuri where the main idol is that of Vishnu. During festivals the Thai Buddhists throng the temple and give offerings in the form of fruits and joss sticks.

Being a Buddhist country, there are many Chaityas spread across the country, some of these Chaityas have murals depicting scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. At the entrance of Prasad Panom Rung there is a huge figure of Nataraja in dancing form. In another Chaitya there is the depiction as Vishnu as Adisesha with Lakshmi pressing his feet. Indra riding the Airavatha is another common feature adorning many Chaityas.

The Government of Thailand has also named some of the departments after Hindu Gods. The Meterological Department is named after Varuna. The Department of Fine Arts is named after Ganesa. Ganesa is also the emblem of Silpakorn University and the National Theatre. Outside the main building of the Chulalongkorn University is the statue of Saraswathi, all in white, mounted on a swan.

From a Tamil Nadu point of view, what endears Thailand is the popularity of Thiruppavai and Thirrrrruvampavai. In December-January, corresponding to the sacred month of Markazhi, Oonjal (swing) festival is celebrated with great gusto. Early in the morning, young girls take bath before sunrise, place the image of Dakshinamurthy (Siva) in the swing and recite verses from both Thiruppavai and Thiruvampavai, so that they will be blessed with loving husbands.

The importance of culture as an instrument of diplomacy has not been recognized by India’s foreign policy makers. Let me give you an illustration. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao paid an official visit to Thailand in April 1983. The visit was significant because it took place at a time when India was looking East and Thailand was looking West. The end of the Cold War provided fresh opportunities for the two countries to establish new linkages.

A significant function was Narasimha Rao’s address to the faculty and students of Thammassat University. On the way to the University, Ambassador A N Ram told the Prime Minister that it was the desire of every Thai Buddhist to come to India and visit places associated with Buddha’s life – Lumbini, where Gautama was born, Sarnath where he got enlightenment and Gaya where he attained Nirvana. Ambassador Ram suggested that if India could waive the visa fee for Buddhist pilgrims it will have an electrifying effect on India-Thailand relations. Narasimha Rao grasped the opportunity and declared that Thais coming to India for pilgrimage will be exempt from visa fee. Next day the whole of Thailand went ga ga over Narasimha Rao’s noble gesture.

One sad aspect of India’s foreign policy should be highlighted. Well intentioned statements are not followed by immediate action. It took three years for Government of India to implement Narasimha Rao’s proposal and that too only for limited purposes. The Government announced that Buddhist monks coming to India will be exempt from visa fee.

People professing different religious faiths –Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims – want to come to India on pilgrimage. And if visa fee is exempted number of pilgrims coming to India will take a quantum jump. While the Government of India will lose the visa fee, there will be other substantial benefits. Each tourist will spend money on air fare, boarding and lodging, transport and expenditure in connection with Pujas and offerings. They will also spend money on shopping. On a rough estimate each pilgrim will spend about US Dollars 10,000/- The Government of India should take the bold decision and exempt all pilgrims from paying visa fee. And it should be made applicable to pilgrims of all denominations. Will Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her colleagues listen to this voice of sanity from Chennai?

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Founding Director and retired Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras; President, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). The views expressed are his own. His e mail id: )

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